O NCE UPON A TIME, more than 100 auto dealerships, car repair shops, and retailers selling parts and accessories lined a mile-long stretch of road that slices through what is now BU’s Charles River Campus. Downtown Boston had its “Piano Row” and its “Newspaper Row.” And for the first half of the 20th century, Comm Ave from Kenmore Square to Packard’s Corner was the city’s “Automobile Row.”
Look carefully, and you can still see vestiges of the area’s former life, many of them ensconced in buildings now owned by BU. The scallop shell, which looks suspiciously like the Shell Oil logo, sculpted into the facade of the BU Academy. The miniature mechanics and motorists that gaze down at student artwork from pillars in the College of Fine Arts. On almost every block of the Charles River Campus, an astute observer can find traces of its automotive past.
The Prince of Packard’s Corner
It began with Alvan T. Fuller. Born in 1878, Fuller was a champion bicycle racer who at age 17 opened a bike shop in his hometown of Malden, Mass. After the turn of the century, he decided to bank on a more expensive form of transportation: automobiles. Fuller persuaded the Detroit-based Packard Motor Car Company to name him its exclusive dealer in the Boston area.
By 1908, Fuller anticipated that the motorcar business would soon outgrow the confines of central city locations such as his stall in the Motor Mart in Boston’s Park Square. The young entrepreneur thought the business might move westward. After decades that saw luxury homes rise in the Back Bay and Brookline’s Cottage Farm district, development had stalled on Comm Ave west of Kenmore Square. Fuller cast his eye on large unbuilt tracts that were close to downtown and accessible by trolley.
The site he chose for his grand new Packard dealership was a section of Brighton coincidentally named Packard’s Corner—after the nearby horse stable and riding school run by one John D. Packard. “Fuller may have been tempted to the neighborhood because of the name,” says William P. Marchione, a member of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society and author of four books about Boston.
Designed by architect Albert Kahn, the building Fuller erected at 1079–1089 Commonwealth Avenue—now home to condominiums as well as Supercuts and other businesses at street level—was New England’s first combined auto salesroom and service station. It included assembly, storage, and repair facilities, as well as offices.
The building’s showpiece, however, was its showroom, designed to appeal to the kind of high-end customers who could afford the $5,000 for a new Packard. “Fuller’s handsomely furnished showroom had high ceilings and fluted columns, and was lit by a combination of elaborate hanging fixtures and a barrel-vaulted skylight,” writes Marchione in Allston-Brighton in Transition: From Cattle Town to Streetcar Suburb.
At that time, any automobile was a luxury few could afford. Often called a touring car, the Packard was something to be taken out for Sunday spins on “pleasure roads” in the country, not driven to Buffalo to see one’s aunt (that’s what the train was for) or to work (trolley lines connected most suburbs to the city). Fuller’s typical buyer was either wealthy, a committed gearhead hobbyist (considerable assembly was required after purchase), or some combination thereof.
As the number of potential customers grew in the second decade of the century, other dealers followed Fuller to Packard’s Corner and the vicinity, where big open spaces afforded spacious showrooms that were ornate by today’s standards. “These buildings required large expanses of well-lighted garage space and display areas, and floors capable of supporting heavy loads,” writes Nancy Salzman in Buildings & Builders: An Architectural History of Boston University. “Their facades were often embellished with vigorous and distinctive designs.”
From 1910 to 1920, at least a dozen dealerships opened on Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues, selling models of Auburn, Rolls-Royce, Hupmobile, Pierce-Arrow, Clark-Crowley, and other brands.
As it turns out, Alvan Fuller did more than open the first of many car dealerships; he sparked an enduring and nationwide promotional trend. Because people didn’t drive in the winter, Fuller figured that by late February motorists were ready to check out the year’s new Packards. By 1917, the car salesman had begun hosting an annual “open house” on George Washington’s birthday, February 22. Other dealers followed suit, offering their own sales and hiring bands and serving cherry pies. “It was a carnival atmosphere on Comm Ave,” says Edward Ellis, whose family owned an auto accessories store on Comm Ave for decades (see below).
Such innovative marketing helped make Fuller one of the richest men in America, and in 1924, after serving eight years in the state legislature, he won the race for governor, defeating the legendary James Michael Curley.